Steve Bannon Is Not a Populist

The man behind the throne – Steve Bannon (former Goldman Sachs employee) – likes to present himself as the leader of a populist movement. Given that the Trump administration is focusing today on dismantling the Dodd-Frank reforms that reined in Wall Street after the Great Recession, it can seem hard to understand how that fits with a populist agenda.

While it’s true that Bannon tapped into the same anger following the financial crisis that fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign, it is important to know that the president’s chief strategist has an entirely different way of describing what happened. I wrote about that recently after watching the documentary, “Generation Zero” that was produced by Bannon and David Bossie (of Citizens United fame).

The film basically has two explanations for what caused the Great Recession. The first is uniquely bizarre.

It’s telling that they start off with blaming mothers in the 1950’s who overindulged their children because of their experience with the Great Depression and World War II (nothing about fathers ever came up). In their telling, these narcissistic children went on to overturn cultural norms as part of the Woodstock generation of hippies in the 1960’s and then were trained in disruption tactics by people like Saul Alinsky to ruin our government – culminating in deregulation and entitlements of the 1990’s. Those narcissistic baby boomers also spawned the “me generation” of greed that took over Wall Street.

Traveling from overindulgent mothers to the narcissistic children of the Woodstock generation to Saul Alinsky as the one responsible for deregulation and entitlements is what happens when conspiracy theorists attempt to engage in cultural anthropology. Tacking on those narcissistic baby boomers whose greed took over Wall Street seems at odds with whatever point it was they were trying to make. But then the whole thing is obviously the product of their fevered imaginations, so why not?

The second explanation is tied to one we often hear from conservatives. It all goes back to the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. According to Bannon and Bossie, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement “claimed” that banks were involved in redlining – a form of discrimination that precluded African Americans from buying a home or starting a business. Due to white guilt, banks were forced by the government to make loans to them in order to prove they weren’t racist. That is what created an explosion in subprime lending leading up to the crisis.

So you see…the banking crisis was all the fault of those narcissistic Woodstock hippies and Civil Rights leaders. As I wrote previously:

The problem Bannon and Bosie zero in on is the idea that government should intervene in capitalism to level the playing field for those who would otherwise be subjected to exclusion and marginalization. What they are suggesting is that true capitalism that leads to the survival of the fittest is best.

That is an embrace of raw capitalism – not populism. It’s why someone like Bannon would completely endorse a plan to dismantle the Wall Street reforms contained in Dodd-Frank – embracing the trajectory David Simon warned us about years ago.

I didn’t start out as a cynic, but at every given moment where this country has had a choice – its governments, institutions, corporations, its social framework – to exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god. You are not looking at a marxist up here, but you are looking at somebody who doesn’t believe that capitalism can work absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy. Capitalism has to be attended to. And that has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed. Everywhere we have created an alternate America of haves and have-nots. At some point, either more of us are going to find our conscience or we’re not.

It would seem that Steve Bannon lost his conscience a long time ago.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.